California is mostly a wilderness. Bare, brutal deserts bordered by tumbling wooded mountain ranges, farmlands, and suburban sprawls stitched together by strip mall parking lots and 7-11s. Our cities, built on trash heaps we pushed into the ocean, precariously cling to the edge of the world. (They’re also sinking!) It should be no surprise, then, that all manner of critters and monsters and bumbling night terrors continue to haunt many Californians. But mostly me!
At 6 a.m. this morning, while I was busy committing blog crimes, I heard my cat Felicity screaming outside. An outdoor cat her entire life, she’s taken to scaling the connecting fence between my yard and the neighbor’s, crying the whole time because cats are mostly stupid, and she loves going places she doesn’t know how to return from. The noise was a common one, so I ignored it. Big mistake! A moment later a larger scream overtook hers, as well as the sound of backyard debris tumbling about. I rushed outside—mostly clothed—and discovered that Felicity was chasing around my least favorite raccoon: A thick fucker, mangy and twice her size with battle scars worn like trendy accessories across his bulking hide.
In the past I’ve attempted to fight him off with a broom, but he’s recently discovered that simply grabbing my broom with his tiny, fucked-up hands will send me running. So I introduced him to the hose instead. My cat, an unfortunate casualty of my reckless water usage, ran inside. The raccoon—let’s call him Bill—clambered back into his oaken perch. It’s been hours now, but I guarantee if I looked out the window on the tree that dumps too many leaves in my yard, I’d see the glint of his eyes. Waiting, plotting.
I have no scientific proof to support what I call “Berkeley Raccoon Season.” But I’ve overheard multiple friends and couples in line at Berkeley Bowl, a haven of Birkenstock-ed Berkeley denizens buying bulk kombucha and overpriced granola, discussing it, which feels like more than enough anecdotal evidence for me. It begins when the weather cools, and there isn’t a plethora of trash to be found pre-cooked in alleys and parks under a sweltering sun. It must be this scarcity, coupled with a changing climate, that emboldens the raccoons. Last year I had to evict the raccoon family that lived under my porch more times than I can count. This was before I moved in with my now-husband, and my apartment was nestled in the foothills that line the East Bay. Despite the freezing late-night temperatures, my ground floor apartment had little to no air circulation. So I kept the windows open even in the winter. A family of raccoons kept crawling through my window and eating all the food. Especially the overpriced granola I like from Berkeley Bowl.
Again, I’m not a scientist or particularly well versed in raccoon physiology. Despite my relationship to the species, I’ve never bothered to look it up. But something tells me they have the same bones as rats, or mice, who (at least in cartoons) can squeeze through just about anything—even thick fuckers like Bill, my current nemesis! Last year I found one trying to escape up a drain pipe. A few months ago, I watched one squeeze itself between the grates that lead to the sewer, which is also where the clown in It resides, murdering children. A nightmare! Despite escaping the foothills, where the raccoons are more numerous than actual people, I haven’t been able to shake the family that now lives in the oak tree. Not to impose a heterosexual human family structure on the raccoons, but I believe Bill is the father. Or, perhaps, the son who never moved out and discovered 4chan at a particularly divisive time in his life. Regardless, he’s their leader, and for an entire year has waged a complex struggle to enter my home through the back door. Raccoon season, as it always does, has made him bolder.
When dealing with wildlife in Northern California, it’s important to remember that the actual people who live there are incredibly recent additions. Deluded colonists who moved out west at the turn of the 20th century, seeking gold or self-fulfillment or something other than the stuffy pompousness of New England civility. But the raccoons, and deer, and mountain lions? They were already here—unlike my grandparents, who traveled from Iowa after high school in 1970, searching for something bigger than a town of 400 people and a combination gas station-bar-laundromat. My grandma was pregnant with my mom still, and her dream was to be a Hollywood hair dresser. Instead, for 40 years, she gave perms to women in the farm town where I grew up, and my grandfather sold used tractor parts. (Interesting that even in packing up and moving across country, they took Iowa with them.)
The raccoons were here when my grandparents arrived, and they probably picked through their trash too. As they did my parents, and now me. (Except, being the first in my family to move to a major metropolitan area, I’d say my experiences are more severe.) And while they predate us by millennia, the land around us brings out the same tendencies. Even across species! California is a desert, even if it is bordered by breathtaking mountain ranges and the most beautiful ocean I’ll ever lay my eyes on. Resources may have once been bountiful, but the water has long dried up. Our forests are burning down, crops destroyed by irregular weather patterns, and the ocean will soon claim what habitable land is left. The raccoons laying siege to my wildly overpriced Berkeley apartment are, like me, just doing what they must to survive.
A few weeks ago, Felicity heard Bill creeping around past midnight. I was dead asleep when she lunged across the backyard to fend him off, but my husband, a blessedly light sleeper, leapt into action. He flung our sheets clear across the room, crashed through the backdoor, and started pantomiming scary motions to ward Bill away. This woke me up, and I rushed to help. He’d forgotten to turn the lights on—my first line of defense—so I flipped the switch and clambered down to grab the hose. When the aged Christmas lights finally illuminated the midnight menagerie—I found my husband clutching our cat, butt naked and doing a strange dance. Bill was nowhere to be found. The neighbors, who’d just moved in next door, sleepily peered through their bedroom window, wondering if they’d made a mistake in signing the lease. Bill disappeared after that, and our backyard was quiet—until this morning. At some other point in my life I’d be irritated, but all I feel is relief. Like me, Bill and his family might survive another season.